Why Have I No Power? Thoughts on Negotiating the Tenure Track Offer

I was working with a Negotiating Assistance client last week, and about halfway through our work, as I said for the fourth time or so, “you can’t really ask for ALL of that; you’ll have to pick and choose,” he cried out over email, “But why? Why have I no power?”

At first I laughed—I thought it was hyperbole for comic effect, and ironic self-dramatization. But then I realized he was serious. Then I got annoyed—well of course you have no power, why would you think you had power? But then, as days went by, I found myself reflecting on this cri de coeur. Why does he have no power? Does he actually have NO power? What is power, for a successful job candidate negotiating his first job?

I realized that answering this query accurately requires a rather careful parsing of the successful candidate’s real position vis-a-vis the hiring body. And it is to that that I turn today.  For those of you hoping for more of a “how-to” on negotiating, please refer to this post, How to Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer, and this one, Stop Negotiating Like a Girl.

So first of all, let’s remember Marx. You are the labor, not the owners of the means of production. Ipso facto, you really have almost no power. This is fact.

Add to this that your labor market is vastly, obscenely oversaturated. There are hundreds if not thousands of you who would leap at the job. At the entry level position in the academy, you have almost no leverage.

If you are the happy recipient of more than one equivalent offer (and they must be equivalent—ie, both must be tenure track jobs, not postdocs or the like, and both must be at equal status institutions), then you have more leverage.

Now, a tweak of this basic set of facts at the academic hiring level is that once the department has decided on YOU as their top candidate, they’ve invested thousands of dollars in the search already, and have likely voted all other candidates unacceptable. Therefore although there are in theory hundreds or thousands of you to take the slot, in fact, the nature of tenure track hiring means that all the department’s eggs are kind of concentrated in one basket, and the basket is you. So….. a little leverage appears on the horizon!

However, increasingly in recent years, institutions have taken to rescinding offers of candidates who seek to negotiate an improvement in their contract. This is no joke. It’s not yet common, but it’s happens with regularity. I find it more common among very low status regional colleges than among elite R1s and SLACs, but then again, the forum Universities to Fear has accounts of rescinded offers that range the entire spectrum of institutional locations. I just had a NA client see an offer rescinded last month. Thank heavens she had a second offer in hand. Otherwise, tragedy. She was attempting only a very modest and reasonable negotiation.

So the generalized atmosphere of fear mitigates against leverage for you.

So…do you have any power? Well, it’s my opinion that yes, you do. Even without a second offer, you have a little. The department has invested an enormous amount of money and time into finding you, and you can use their desire not to have the search fail to your advantage. You have a LITTLE bit of power, and it is in that LITTLE that the work of negotiating happens. You can ask for x but not y, z but not q. You can ask for a, b, and c, but not a through h inclusive. And so on.

Traumatized former job seekers tend to be so desperate and craven and codependent and eager to please that left to their own devices they barely ask for, say, half of “x.” That is a mistake. All job offers should be negotiated! At the same time, occasionally an offeree suffers from delusions of grandeur and believes that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars should be provided as tribute to his or her contributions.  Far more often offerees simply have no conception of how the budget associated with a line is actually funded–ie, what pots of money are available, and where they reside, and to whom they may be given, and what strings are attached to them that tie the negotiating department head’s hands.

Let me repeat: All job offers should be negotiated, unless you have it on good authority that the institution you are dealing with is a known rescinder.

Negotiations will cover things like salary, moving expenses, teaching release, a guaranteed junior sabbatical, research funds, start up funds, conference funds, and many other things.

How many of these things you can ask for will hinge on the status of the institution. A R1 or Ivy League will accommodate longer lists; elite SLACs will too. But heading downward status-wise, more and more doors will be closed. To evaluate you need a decent sense of the financial status of the institution with which you’re dealing, and then the relative status or rank of your department within that institution.

It will also depend on your field. The fact is, hard science and life science offers are breathtaking—absolutely breathtaking—from a humanities point of view. I help people negotiate and I stand by flabbergasted at what they get. Any lab-based field hire will easily get 10 times what social sciences and humanities hires receive.

If you’re in the humanities, and you’re negotiating at a small college, and you have no other job offer, then you have very little power to negotiate indeed. You can seek to nudge up salary. You can extract some more startup funds, or a bit of conference travel funding. You can ask for a course release in the first year. And maybe 1 or 2 other things. But not a princely sum.

Negotiating is really an art. I have clients give me a rundown not just of their initial offer but of how warm or cold the department felt, how eagerly they feel they’re being recruited, their sense of what recent hires have been given, the overall financial outlook of the institution, and a range of other factors. Then we carefully construct our negotiating requests.

In sum, then, it is a hard lesson that at the end of all those years slaving away in the Ph.D. program and on the job market, and perhaps as an itinerant adjunct, when you finally grab the gold ring of the tenure track position, you still have very little power indeed. But that is the case. However, never confuse little power with no power. You have some, and a successful negotiation will extract every last little bit of benefit from it.

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Why Have I No Power? Thoughts on Negotiating the Tenure Track Offer — 18 Comments

  1. The ultimate power anyone has is the power to walk away from a situation that makes them uncomfortable. I would think that a cold or less than enthusiastic institution or a rigid and poor offer suggests that actually accepting the position might be an epic error. The institution might own the means, but the candidate owns their labor and can decide where to sell it.

  2. Maybe you were just being hyperbolic, but how can a hard sciences hire possibly get ten times what a humanities or social sciences hire gets?

    • Not in the base salary (which can however, easily be 2x–say $50K vs. $100K) but when the start-up offer is added, it’s generally been ten times the typical humanities startup, or far more. ie, $10k for humanities, $100K for sciences; or $20K for humanities, $90K, or $1.3 million, or the like, for sciences. Naturally this will depend on the science and the specific needs, but when lab equipment is factored in and we’re dealing with an R1 then high six figures heading into 7 is not unusual.

      • OK, that’s what I figured you meant. But the cost of running a lab isn’t really something additional the candidate is getting, it’s just part of overhead that the humanities and social sciences don’t have. Twice as much base pay is still a big discrepancy, but that’s true at all levels of the field, including graduate funding.

  3. Thanks for this timely post and your others on negotiation! Currently I have a tenure-track offer on the table from a branch campus of a respected state university system (I’m ABD, so having anything is exciting at this point). You mentioned R1s, Ivys, and elite SLACs, but I’m wondering if you have specific insights about negotiating within the parameters of large state systems. The Dean said she can’t negotiate much on the salary because it is already slightly higher than that of some current faculty. Is it offensive/dangerous to ask for a modest (<3k) salary increase? Or, should I focus on research start-up funds (non-existent) and course releases?

  4. I just finished reading Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, and it was really quite helpful in learning the process of negotiating, and sharing many stories of successful and unsuccessful negotiations.

    For academics on the job market of any gender, who often undervalue themselves, I highly recommend this book.

  5. What are “start up” funds? I’ve never heard of this. I can see in the sciences where one would need funds to establish a lab obtain equipment, but what would this be in say, a history or art department?

    • Oh my lord, candace… start up funds are part of any offer above a community college level. All schools handle differently, but these funds can be meant to cover a new computer and printer, other nec. equipment like an ipad (although often computer related stuff is awhole separate line item in the offer), travel to conferences (also sometimes a sep line item), travel for research (also sometimes a sep line item), books, a research assistant, etc. etc. etc.

  6. (How) are salary negotiations different in settings where salaries are set by a collective agreement? Is there room to move up from the floor set by the collective agreement?

  7. One piece that also needs to be considered when negotiating is whether faculty are unionized. In that case, the terms of the collective agreements become part of the puzzle of what is and is not negotiable. In my experience (to respond to Heather’s question) movement outside salary steps set out in a collective agreement is pretty well a non-starter–unless there are provisions in the agreement to count for prior experience. The short of it: review the collective agreement carefully.

  8. Hello Karen,
    Recently I have been following your posts and have loved reading them.

    If I already have a job and going for another one for a better school, don’t I still have leverage in negotiating since I already have a job and if I don’t get the second job I still have my fallback job where I am already working as faculty.
    What are your thoughts on that?

    Thank you.

  9. Hi Karen;

    I wasn’t sure whether to post this on one of your negotiating pages or email you. So I’ll try both.

    I had a pretty positive interview at an R1 – I was told my job talk was a shining example of the genre. I was told that if they get back to me with positive results, I’ll have about two weeks to respond. But I have a host of other applications out for which I haven’t had responses yet. So I’m wondering

    1) At this stage can I ask the other departments that have not gotten back to me about their progress – or will this just scare them away, making them think they’ll have to deal with a double-offer situation.

    2) How long can I defer my response to the first offer?

    3) If I accept the R1 job before hearing from the others, and then get another, better offer (i.e. in Shanghai), then what’s my position with regards to the first department? Can I back out of the 1st contract? Would that be illegal/unprofessional? Can I use the 1st department’s contract to negotiate against an offer from another one?

    4) How much lead-time do you need for me to sign-up for your negotiation services? I don’t know when the offer will come if it does.

        • I’m aware these comments are from sometime ago but I am in similar position. I just received an offer SLAC but I am still interviewing with a big name R1. Campus interviews will not be for another month at the R1 but I have an offer to accept in a week. This is such a tough decision. I certainly wouldn’t pass up my current offer but it’s also hard to withdraw myself from the interview pool at the R1.

          • I’m very sorry to hear it, and it’s just how things are right now. A lot of smaller schools accelerate their processes now to grab people like you, because they know they can’t compete with R1s. And any job seeker would be a fool to turn down any TT offer at this point. There is no easy solution, but I’d take the SLAC offer.

    • I responded to Currently by email, but I’ll say here that yes, you can ask other places about their timelines; you usually can’t ask for more than a couple weeks to finalize an offer, so all other campus visits would need to be finished and OFFERS on the table by then; it’s extremely tacky to renege on an acceptance if a better offer comes in later; beyond this, however, I will only offer specific negotiating advice when someone has signed on as a client and signed a contract; the stakes are too high for general advice! I need no lead time for Negotiating Assistance. It can always be started immediately. Email me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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